The Two Futures of the Arab World, An Essay By Tarek Osman

Five years since the Arab uprisings, a political, cultural and social battle is still raging across the Middle East. Tarek Osman, the author of Islamism, explores‎ the challenges facing the Arab world, and reflects on the conflicting factors that will shape its future.

The Two Futures of the Arab World

by Tarek Osman

Tarek Osman

Tarek Osman

The Arab world is undergoing its most transformative change for a century. There are factors in this transformation that could plunge the Arab world into more disintegration, violence and chaos than what we have been seeing in the last five years. Yet, also within this transformation, there are changes that could salvage the Arab world, and usher it on a new trajectory of regeneration.

Aside from the uprisings, regime-change, and civil wars, the key development that the Arab world has witnessed in the last few years has been the fall of the Arab state system of the past seven decades. The nation states in the Eastern Mediterranean that Britain and France created after the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire have been unravelling. In Iraq and Syria central state authority has collapsed. Lebanon’s various political factions have for over a year and half now been unable to agree on a president, leaving the country effectively a shell-state where the government undertakes administration and coordination, while its different religious and feudal communities retain their own political structures and foreign alliances. Eight years after the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas took control of Gaza and broke off relations with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, a cohesive Palestinian political entity remains elusive.

‘The system of the nation state in the Arab periphery has also crumbled. Sudan has been divided into two countries with opposing economic interests and strategic orientations. The North is ruled by a president charged by the International Criminal Court, Omar al-Bashir, and the South is mired in a low-intensity tribal war.’

For over two decades, Somalia, which commands a strategic location at the strait linking the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean, has been ruled by a coterie of war lords. The chaos there has given rise to multiple threats afflicting East Africa—violent Islamism, pirating, human trafficking. On the other side of the Arab periphery, close to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, the Sahara separating North and West Africa has effectively fallen under the control of violent Islamists, of which Boko Haram is the most famous. The region’s main economic activities now are trading in arms, drugs and humans.

The notion of the “Arab Maghreb” (a cohesive western part of the Arab world) has been diluted. The hope that Libya’s 2011 uprising against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi once generated has been shattered by the country’s descent into a complicated civil war. Despite a UN-sponsored agreement (at the end of 2015), the country continues to be ravaged by different militias, while the eastern and southern parts of the country have become havens for violent Islamists with links to similar groups in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Algeria, the Maghreb’s largest country (and Europe’s third largest provider of gas), remains frozen in the political settlement that ended its 1990s’ civil war. Some of the country’s Islamist groups have been allowed to operate there, but under heavy restrictions. There are no real political or economic reforms happening as the country waits uncertainly for the compromise deal that will follow the death of the acutely ill President Abdelaziz Boutafliqua.

Morocco has safely navigated the upheavals that followed the Arab uprisings. The monarchy has begun a promising political experiment in which the elected parliament and the government it mandates are becoming increasingly empowered. Morocco is the only Arab country negotiating a comprehensive free trade agreement with the European Union. Apart from the economic benefits the treaty will bring, the Moroccan authorities believe that this is a first step towards aligning the country with the EU. They are trying to arrive at the closest possible relationship with the European bloc outside EU membership. Morocco is also positioning itself as an economic, financial and cultural hub for Francophone Africa. And increasingly, the country is incorporating the culture of its non-Arab communities, primarily the tribal Amazighs, into its educational and artistic systems. All of this bodes well for Morocco. But the country’s links to the Arab east are increasingly tenuous.

Tunisia, geographically at the heart of the Maghreb and where the Arab Spring was sparked, is regarded as the sole success story of those upheavals. The country has completed a peaceful and generally inclusive political transformation; it has moved from having one of the most closed Arab political systems prior to 2011, to the most open and liberal one today. Despite that, the differences between the secularists and the Islamists transcend political enmity into a visible and potentially perilous social polarisation. The development gap between the coastal cities and the interior regions is dangerously wide. In addition, Tunisia’s relative success has limited resonance across the wider Arab world. Because of its small size and demography, distinctively secular experience in the last six decades and because the formative experience of its Islamists have been as Western exiles rather than locked up in local prisons, Tunisia is a unique case. The region looks at it with admiration, but not as an example.

As all these Maghreb countries go their separate ways, the old connections that had bound that part of the Arab world will be gradually frayed. The notion of the “Arab Maghreb” will lose its meaning.

Since its population constitutes almost a third of all Arabs, Egypt could almost be regarded as a region in itself within the Arab world. Since his inauguration in mid-2014, President Abdelfattah al-Sisi has led ambitious mega projects such as expanding the Suez Canal, and implemented serious economic reforms, most notably a significant liberalisation of energy prices. But the road to economic stability will be a long one. After half a century of accumulating problems, Egypt now confronts acute challenges that mean that even under optimistic forecasts, the country will in the medium term remain mired in economic difficulties. The country’s political upheavals since the 2011 anti-Mubarak protests, and the confrontation between state institutions and political Islam, have resulted in a social polarisation that the country has not seen since the rise of Arab nationalism in the 1950s. As it faces its own gruelling problems, the Arab world will be denied Egypt’s large reservoir of human talent.

Arab world

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, photo Lucy Harley-Mckeown

The states of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—appear to be internally stable, prosperous and thriving. These countries are also the ones orchestrating all the strategic dossiers emerging from the region, including the Arab response to the nuclear deal between Iran and the West and managing the crises in Iraq and Syria.

The Gulf’s future, however, is far from certain. Look beyond the ostentatious wealth of Riyadh and Kuwait and the glamorous veneer of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, and you will see dangerous challenges lurking. Slowing growth in marginal demand for energy in consumer countries such as China, the decreasing cost of producing alternative energy sources as well as shale oil and gas, and as the Organisation of Oil Producing Countries (OPEC) becomes increasingly divided and dysfunctional, for the foreseeable future oil prices are likely to remain below the Gulf’s breakeven levels of USD60-to-70 per barrel. This means that the Gulf will lose its primary (some would say, sole) source of power: petro-dollars.

The GCC countries’ demographics are perilous: over 70 per cent of the Gulf’s population is foreign and without reliable political rights. And the Gulf’s confrontation with Iran, currently unfolding in different theatres in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula (most recently in Saudi Arabia’s campaign against Iranian-backed groups in Yemen) will prove extremely exacting for the Gulf States. As a result, these countries’ ability to stabilise other parts of the Arab world, let alone detach themselves from the ills afflicting the rest of the region, will wane—probably faster than many observers (especially in the Gulf) expect.

A common threat throughout the Arab world is violent Islamism—a phenomenon that was on decline in the Arab world since the late-1990s but is back with a vengeance. This time, however, violent Islamism seeks not just to overthrow regimes it deems to be heretical as was the case between the 1970s and 1990s; now it seeks to create its own political entities. Groups such as the al-Qaida affiliate the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are enlarging their footprint in the Eastern Mediterranean, establishing primitive yet functional governing structures, increasingly offering educational and health care services to those in the areas they control. Their spread is taking parts of the Arab world away from the 21st-century and back to centuries-old ways of political and cultural thinking.

Jihadist-Islamism is not, however, the sole force spawning violence in the Arab world. In the last five years, over 300,000 Arabs have been killed and more than four million displaced as a result of civil wars, social confrontations and state-sanctioned bloodshed. This diminishes any hope for justice and engenders a culture of revenge. Hardly any crime against humanity that had taken place in the Arab world in the last five years has been seriously investigated, let alone the perpetrators brought to justice. Across the region, emerging non-state actors are seeking to protect their communities, assert what they consider to be their rights and persecute those they deem criminals or traitors. Almost certainly, this wave of violence will continue.

‘This is all happening at a time when the Arab world is suffering from an unprecedented level of social exclusion. All the political ideologies that dominated the Arab world in the last 150 years tried to impose themselves on the whole of society.’

Arab liberalism in the late 19th and early 20th century saw itself as bringing western modernity to a region that had been stuck in medieval lethargy for centuries. The liberal movement spread modern education, introduced the notion of democracy and equal citizenry, and exposed the Arab world to waves of art and culture that gave rise to effervescent creativity, especially in Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean. But Arab liberalism neither managed to reconcile itself with the region’s religious and social heritage, nor expanded its modernity (including economic progress and social development) to the region’s lower middle classes and poor. Arab nationalism from the 1950s to the 1970s inspired tens of millions of Arabs with a system that seemed to combine social equality with economic development. It failed—not just economically and in terms of development, but also failed its own constituencies. By the 1990s, all the Arab nationalist regimes had ended up autocratic, oppressive and with terrible human rights records. Yet throughout the last century the Arab state had always tried to be the governor, the provider and the social orchestrator for all its citizens. This is no longer true. Today, large social segments are excluded from the political process and from access to justice because of their ideological affiliations or religious background. The Arab state has become increasingly selective about which of its citizens it is willing to protect or even acknowledge.

Even identity has been diluted. Whereas the modern Arab state had always tried to impose a certain view of a nation’s identity on all social segments, today, there is a strong tendency towards excluding those who oppose state-sanctioned identity from belonging to the country altogether. For example, Islamists in secular and tribal Arab countries are consistently portrayed as traitors to nationalism. This conflict between political Islam and nationalist forces cuts the Arab world when every single ideology that has ever inspired loyalty in the region is either bankrupt or discredited. This creates an identity vacuum.

Demographics make matters worse. The vast majority of the 180 million Arabs under 35 years old came of age in the last two decades, when political legitimacy across the region has been weakened, power and wealth blurred, republics turned into familial fiefdoms, and corruption and abuse of power reached shocking levels. The events of the last four years have exacerbated the situation. In this period, close to 40 million young Arabs (mainly in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen) have come to live in regions without central authority or rule of law. The notion of belonging to a state and any affiliation to any non-religious or non-tribal identity is crumbling.

As a result of the Syria and Libya crises, there are now at least five million Arab refugees in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. Most of whom have settled in countries with limited economic resources, primarily Jordan and Lebanon. This places major pressure on these countries’ educational, healthcare, transportation and other services infrastructures. It also angers local host communities. Tension is already reaching boiling levels in some parts of the Eastern Mediterranean where the populations of some towns and villages have doubled in four years. Any eruption of anger will give rise to confrontations between these different communities, and will potentially pit local host communities (and refugees) against state institutions. The result will be further violence—and a weakening of the already strained state-society relationships.

A key victim of all this is the Arab public space. As the state retreats, national identity diluted, social groups excluded and people lose their connection with central authority, the notion of a common milieu in which ideas are generated and policies proposed loses its meaning. The result is social fragmentation. Polarisation increases and the concept of the common good falls.

This is exacerbated by the weakening of the Arab institutions that have traditionally transcended class, sect and ideology and were places to gather and discuss for people across the whole region. Formerly venerable Arab cultural and journalistic houses have descended to shocking levels of intellectual decay.

Arab educational institutions have been failing for decades now. No Arab university appears in any serious ranking of international higher-education. The Arab world’s contribution to global research and development, in almost any scientific field, is negligible. A region with over 300million people does not have a single newspaper, think tank, or artistic establishment with global reputation, let alone clout. As the public space disappears and the major institutions that used to act as bulwarks of art and culture have crumbled, the mechanisms that in the early and mid-20th century generated major advances in Arab thinking, exposure to the world, and literary and artistic creation have been weakened. This has reduced the size of the Arab intelligentsia, which has traditionally absorbed and championed political development, economic reform and the empowerment of civil society. A vicious downward cycle is set in motion. The Arab world could gradually lose not only the territorial integrity of some of its states, the cohesiveness of many of its societies, but also the connections to its cultural heritage. A new generation of Arabs will arrive on the scene with hardly any understanding of their history or any appreciation of the civilisation to which they, nominally, belong.

Chaos, polarisation, violence and intellectual decay have generated an alarming brain drain in the Middle East and North Africa—especially among bright Arabs from religious minorities. Statistics are difficult to come by, but my conversations with community leaders (inside and outside the Arab world) indicate a rapid increase in emigration from the region by those who have chances to settle in Europe and the US. Almost always they are the ones with the best education, exposure to the world and relatively decent financial means. The loss of the cleverest young minds condemns the Arab world to further decay. But the increasing flight of religious minorities will have a more perilous result: it decreases the non-Islamic social component in the Arab world. In effect, it denies Arabness what has always distinguished it from Islamism.

The Arab world suffers another form of emigration: inward. Scores of talented and liberal Arabs have come to believe that working totally out of the traditional boundaries of their societies will produce better futures for themselves and their families. Many are isolating themselves from their own societies. They work in enterprises (especially in high-end services) that are connected to the global economy, much more than to the economies of their own countries; they live in gated compounds or leafy suburbs, away from the region’s pulsating cities; they send their children to foreign schools and later western universities; and even in entertainment they ensconce themselves in House of Cards, Breaking Bad and indie cinema. Mentally, emotionally, and in their values they are becoming aliens in their own societies.

This has an economic cost. Emigration and intellectual detachment lead these economically powerful sections of society to limit their investment in and exposure to their own countries. Local investment diminishes. Job creation slows down, a particularly bad consequence in a region with extremely young demographics and low competitiveness.

The hope that was born with the “Arab Spring” that the Middle East will finally move towards liberal democracy has been replaced by despair. Already international observers have begun to dismiss the Arab world as a region stuck in medieval ways of thinking and governance, a region on its way “out of history.”

But in the shadows of the depressing canvass there are promising developments. Since the mid-2000s, in almost all Arab countries, the private sector has become the largest employer and the largest provider of investment capital—ahead of the state and foreign investors. For the first time in over six decades, almost across the whole region, there are now large social segments that own small and medium-sized businesses, are employed by private-sector companies, and who increasingly have large exposures to their economies’ real estate and capital markets. The aspirations of these groups are rising. Modern digital communications have given them (and others in lower social strata) immense, and unprecedented, exposure to lifestyles and modes of social interaction in other parts of the world. Large groups of young Arabs now expect to live much more fulfilling lives than these of their parents. This has not only fuelled consumerist tastes; it has also forced some of the region’s regimes to at least pay lip service to concepts such as rule of law, fighting corruption, diluting economic concentration of power, enhancing transparency in decision making and installing checks on executive authority. It was not a coincidence that all the Arab constitutions which have been drafted or amended in the last four years, have enshrined these concepts. Implementing these remains elusive. But these concepts have been forced on the national agenda in many Arab countries and that many Arab states felt compelled to address them, is a valuable step.

A more important development is taking place away from states or constitutions. Those proprietors of small and medium-size businesses, entrepreneurs, asset owners and private sector employees are gradually forming pockets within the region’s middle classes that are much more active and involved in their societies’ concerns than the previous two Arab generations. There is a conspicuous activism within many Arab professional syndicates, labour unions, farmers’ associations, and student unions. This transcends free elections to choose their executive councils and is manifested in serious debates on key economic and social policies. The social debates that took place in the last two years concerning Morocco’s regionalisation strategy, Egypt’s liberalisation of energy prices, and Kuwait’s overhauling of its national budget, were examples of this civic activism.

Perhaps the most promising development is taking place in modern Arab art. Since the mid-2000s, Arab cinema, literature, and theatre have depicted a mix of exasperation with existing conditions, search for new social contracts, and a revolutionary streak. This generation of young Arabs will not accept what has been handed to, or imposed on, it. Almost five years since the eruption of the Arab uprisings, this trend continues. The most successful young Arab musicians, theatre groups, novelists, and even “gamers” espouse innovative, ground-breaking, and quite often rebellious forms of their arts. There is little respect for tradition and for continuity of the trends of the last four or five decades.

There is also innovation in how religion is perceived and practiced. Groups of young Christians, especially in Egypt and Lebanon, are seeking ways to modernise decision making in the churches they belong to. Scores of young Muslims, whether on a select of TV shows, or in tens of websites and Facebook pages, are rediscovering the heritage of their religion. Quite often, there is rejection of ways of thinking that have been dominant in the Sunni Islamic world for at least eight centuries, and attempts to forge new understandings of basic tenets of the Islamic faith.

The result is that groups of young Arabs are revamping different facets of Arab societies. They are slowly changing their ways of living, and their links to their identities. Despite the calamitous conditions of Arab politics and the colossal failures of large parts of Arab societies, a new culture of innovation and invention is thriving within these societies’ youths.

These developments are likely to grow. These social segments will almost certainly acquire more assets, control more resources, and, probably in the coming decade, emerge as the dominant force in most Arab economies. Civil society organisations are likely to widen their constituencies, increase their leverage on decision making in various areas, and become a decisive force in how important and consequential social and economic issues are analysed and decided upon. All of this would cultivate a new civic architecture that the Arab world has not seen since the end of the Arab liberal age.

These developments will not solve the Arab world’s problems. Geopolitically, the Arab world will continue to face fragmentation. The Eastern Mediterranean will be utterly reshaped; the countries that appeared at the end of the First World War will be divided by a new order in which states (or statelets) will be based on clear sectarian frames of reference. The Gulf is likely to face serious social turbulence. And parts of North Africa, including countries that today appear stable, will almost certainly witness a new wave of uprisings. A new regional state order will emerge.

But geopolitics won’t be the decisive factor in the future of the Arab world. Socioeconomics will. If the forces of development in the private sector, in the civil society, and in the Arab world’s artistic scene widened their presence, the result would be a breakthrough in the quality of the thinking in the societies where these developments will take hold. This will create a positive cycle. A key beneficiary would be Arab state institutions, which will be forced to upgrade their ways of operations, to catch up with the improving private sector and the powerful civil society.

This will, obviously, bring about many social and economic improvements, initially in a select of Arab societies, but gradually these benefits will spill over to other parts of the region. All of this will lessen social polarisation and will gradually strengthen social cohesion. What is more important is that it will mark a transformation in the philosophy that has shaped the Arab world in the last 200 years: a move from top-down imposition of power, ideas, and worldviews from the state on its people, to a bottom-up society-state interaction in which the middle classes—represented by large, varied, dynamic, and independent private sector and civil societies—become a key force in their countries.

But there is another scenario. These developments, and the forces behind them, could grow at a small scale; their resonance could remain limited to the upper segments of a select of Arab middle classes. This will mean that the factors bedevilling the region would trump these developments, isolate them, and render their impact small green-shoots in an otherwise deeply troubled region.

The Arab world will not collapse in the foreseeable future. Even if it continues in the course it is on now (with all of its corrosive factors, and the wave of fragmentation, remaining unchecked), many Arab countries will continue to exist. There is enough capital and powers and means of coercion in the region to guarantee that the system can survive, for at least the coming decade, in a number of large countries. And some Arab countries are too old, and their power structures are too experienced, to fall to fragmentation or utter chaos. But, if this scenario materialises, the notion of the Arab world will become rhetorical, with these surviving countries attempting to deflect the anarchy around them.

Apart from the fragmentation of large parts of the region, this scenario will herald a graver consequence. Here, the Arab world will become irrelevant to the vast majority of human advances in science and technology, and to the new illuminations in human thinking and development. In this scenario, the Arab world will increasingly become a burden on the world, primarily exporting problems to the global community. Many in the world, and especially in the Arab world’s giant neighbour Europe, will try to distance themselves from it, seeing it not as “a sick man” (as the Ottoman Empire was described in the nineteenth century), but as a “bomb” that the world should always ensure it does not explode – at least because of its large demographics. International interaction with the Arab world will range from economic assistance or realpolitik cooperation with its strong regimes – different efforts to avoid the explosion of the bomb.

It need not end up like that. The endeavours of the Arab world’s genuine private sector, civil society, and innovative young thinkers and artists can save the Arab world such a painful outcome. At heart, this is a struggle between a failed recent past (in the last half century) that does not see how ugly it is, and a promising young part of the present that is aware of its predicament and wants to carve a better future for itself, and for its societies. The decisive factor in the future of the Arab world will be whether the forces that can salvage Arab societies from this past – those that make parts of the present promising – have the perseverance to effect small but recurring improvements in education, exposure to the world, increasing tolerance, fighting concentration of power, demanding political rights, progressing economic reforms, exposing corruption, and crucially in reflecting long and hard on why the Arab world’s experience with modernity, in the last two hundred years, has ended up where it is now, despite a promising start in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

If these forces have and demonstrate that perseverance, the Arab world will have a chance to resuscitate elements of its rich and beautiful heritage. Some of its youth might succeed in putting it on a new trajectory towards rejuvenation. If not, the coming decade will prove excruciating for the Arab world, and for those who are compelled to deal with it.

Islamism: What it Means for the Middle East and the World by Tarek Osman is published by Yale, Jan 2016

Tarek Osman published his prescient and internationally best-selling book Egypt on the Brink with Yale University Press weeks before Egypt’s 2011 uprising. He has appeared as a commentator on most major international news networks and is a regular contributor on the Arab world and Islamism for many leading newspapers and magazines worldwide. He wrote and presented the BBC documentary series ‘The Making of the Modern Arab World’ (2013) and ‘Sands of Time: A History of Saudi Arabia’ (2015), and is the political counsellor for the Arab world at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Tarek has sixteen years’ experience in political-economy advisory, strategy consulting and investment banking and management.

Further reading:

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